NV or not NV? Champagne reserves strengthen non-vintage consistency

One of the world’s greatest wines is anathema to things many enophiles stand for:

* It doesn’t express the terroir of a vineyard
* It’s not the expression of a vintage
* It’s not made from organic or biodynamic grapes

The wine is Champagne. Grower Champagnes are increasingly popular in the U.S., but for most of us, most of the time, the Champagne at hand is a multi-vintage, multi-appellation product made in an attempt to produce a certain style every year. If you wrote that about California Chardonnay, the enophile would turn up his nose. I’ll have your Champagne, thank you very much.

Here’s a meta-point on wine stories. I’m bored with reading the same story about the wines I like. Granted, I like these wines because the story IS the same: “We try to show the terroir of the vineyard and the character of the vintage. We try to do as little as possible in the winery and let the grapes speak.”

If I were writing this for a mainstream newspaper, I can see the point to hammering home that concept every month. But we’re enophiles here; we get terroir. Champagne is the most delicious wine in the world that breaks the roles of enophilia.

How DOES one go about making several hundred thousand cases of wine that taste the same year after year in one of the world’s coldest wine regions, where grapes barely ripen?

Cyril Brun is the winemaker for Charles Heidseick Champagne, which last year broke another rule of the wine business: it released its vintage wines out of order. We started to talk about the bigger side of the Champagne business, the boatloads of wine with which ordinary people celebrate their weddings and promotions and baby showers. You might find it ironic where we end up.

A quick glossary note: “reserve wines” in Champagne are still wines stored in barrels or tanks for years until they are needed for blending. For example, a winery might make its nonvintage Champagne this year mostly from the 2014 vintage blended with reserve wines from 2008 and 2003.
Cyril Brun - Pavillon - creditFengHatat
“We have just released a vintage ’06 rosé,” Brun told me. “We have done an ’05 rosé as well but we decided not to release them in chronological order. The ’05 is still tight. The ’06 rose is more ready to drink now.”

Me: Isn’t that confusing for distributors and retailers, to have an ’06 to sell before the ’05?

Brun: “The distributors are quite happy that the wine is not released for business factors. Since we don’t make a lot of vintage, it’s important for it to be quality. The previous rosé vintage was ’99. It has been a long time since the previous rosé vintage.
The program was to put more reserve wines aside to assure the quality of the nonvintage. My vision is that every time you put reserve wines aside from a good vintage, you assure the quality of the nonvintage. People know that the vintage category is pretty small for us. The vintage category is kind of the cherry on the cake. The real story of Champagne is based on the quality of the nonvintage. The vintage is interesting because you can see the character of a single vintage. But you can judge the style of a winery by the nonvintage.”

Me: What about grower Champagnes? This isn’t the way they think, and they’re quite popular now.

Brun: “They are very small so most of them can’t afford to have reserve wines, so they can’t make nonvintage. Every time you decide not to make a vintage, to make the reserve wines, you know those wines are going to enter into the nonvintage, which is the entry level. So it’s a difficult business decision for them.
The reserve wines are filtered and are separated by region, by varietal and by year. We try to see what will be the potential use. The great potential wine can be on reserve for up to 20 years. But the average age of the reserve wine is 10 years old. We want to take advantage of the complexity you can get from aging on the lees.”

Me: You age them on their own lees for that long? Don’t some of them lose their freshness?

Brun: “They age very smoothly. You have an anaerobic atmosphere because they are on their lees.
The idea is to find what we don’t get in the current harvest in the reserve wines. If you have a harvest that is dilute, you go and pick some reserve wine that is very rich, very complex, very dense. In a year when you have very rich ripeness, you might try and go and get a bit of freshness from the older one. The idea of keeping the reserve wines is to keep more than one kind of wine, because you don’t know what type of harvest you will have in the future. Not every harvest can be a long keeper for the reserve wine.”

Me: Does the grape variety make a difference?

Brun: “We are using both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. They offer different profiles, and we need both. Pinot Meunier peaks much earlier. We don’t use any Pinot Meunier in the reserve wines.
We have about 60% non-reserve and 40% reserve wine in a bottle of non-vintage. It’s about 1/3 Pinot Noir, 1/3 Chardonnay and 1/3 Pinot Meunier. For the current release of nonvintage, the base is the ’07 harvest.”

Me: How was the 2015 harvest?

Brun: “Very likely, people are going to judge my work in 7 or 8 years. So I cannot be fired for 7 years now. This was a very good year, so very likely I will put aside a large percentage to be reserve wines.”

Me: How many growers do you buy from?

Brun: “We buy from about 250 different growers. I have visited them all during September, during the harvest. When you get the right connections, you will be served very well. Many growers are engaged with several maisons (Champagne producers). They will deliver to three or four houses. If you are served number four, you are not going to be served as well. We buy grapes for 90 percent of what we produce. In some cases, we buy juice from a cooperative, so we get delivered a still wine.”

Me: What impacts have you seen of climate change?

Brun: “The global warming has had several impacts. The one that is most important for me, is the way the rain happens is more intense, more brutal. This year we had almost 10 weeks of dryness; then we had brutal showers. It sends a signal to the vineyards to adapt. To me it’s a positive sign for the future because when the vineyards adapt, they grow their roots deeper, so you get a greater expression of terroir.”

All photos courtesy of Colangelo & Partners Public Relations.